Saturday, November 15, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: the Boldness of Beauty (33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

In the beginning of her book An American Childhood Annie Dillard tells the story of watching a neighbor girl skate on the city street on a cold, Pittsburg winter night:

The night Jo Ann Sheehy skated on the street it was dark inside our house.  We were having dinner in the dining room - my mother, my father, my sister Amy, who was two and I.  There were lighted ivory candles on the table ... Now we sat in the dark dining room, hushed...  Behind me, tall chilled windows gave out onto our narrow front yard and street.  A motion must have caught my mother's eye; she rose and moved to the windows, and Father and I followed.  There we saw the young girl, the transfigured Jo Ann Sheehy skating alone under the streetlight. 

She was turning on ice skates inside the streetlight's yellow cone of light - illumined and silent.  She tilted and spun.  She wore a short skirt, as if Edgerton Avenue's asphalt had been the ice of an Olympic arena.  She wore mittens and a red knitted cap below which her black hair lifted when she turned.  Under her skates the street's packed snow shone; it illumined her from below, the cold light striking her under her chin.  

I stood at the tall window, barely reaching the sill; the glass fogged before my face, so I had to keep moving or hold my breath.  What was she doing out there?  Was everything beautiful so bold? 

Nelson Mandela once said: It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented?"  Actually, who are you not to be.  Playing small does not serve the will of God.  We are born to make manifest the glory of God within us.  It is not just within some of us, it is within everyone.  The more we light our own light shine; the more we unconsciously give other people the permission to do the same.

In today's Gospel (Mt. 25:14:30) we are given the parable of the talents.  The term "talent" in our Lord's day was used to denote a certain measurement of wealth.  It is due to this very parable that the word "talent" has the meaning which we know today.  In the parable, the master who is departing on a journey leaves a different sum of talents with three different servants.  The first two servants double what was given them and are rewarded accordingly.  The third servant (out of fear) buries the talent he is given and makes nothing.  He is punished for his laziness. 

So, we see this parable as an instruction about using the gifts, the talents that we have been given in life and not being fearful.  It is also helpful to note where this parable falls within Matthew's gospel.  It is in the section where Jesus is discussing the end times and it comes right before the section where Jesus sets the criteria for judgment of our lives.  (The Gospel passage we will hear next Sunday.)

With the awareness of this context we see that the use of talents is not toward the goal of comfort in this life but toward the goal of the reign of God.  This parable warns us that the servant preferred to hide his life in a hole, in an avaricious and egoistic tranquility ... Jesus unveils the ambiguity of one who contents himself with how things are, has no desire to change, no aspiration to transform life and, no ambition for a happier life for all. (Bishop Vincenzo Paglia)

The Kingdom of God begins with each one of us when we make the choice to not close ourselves off in our own self interest but make the bold choice for life and to help alleviate the sufferings of the other person.  It is a choice that must begin within - the choice to begin changing our own hearts and the choice to bring the Gospel to our world and live the Gospel for our world.

"Does beauty have to be so bold?" wondered the young Annie Dillard.  Yes, it does.  We are each born to make manifest the glory of God within us.   

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The danger of narrowcasting in the Church

There has been a trend developing in our national news media and you have probably noticed it.  It is the move from “broad-casting” to “narrow-casting”.  Charles Seife, in his book, Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You So, How Do You Know It’s True?, lays it out quite clearly. 

       Back when the Big Three ruled the airwaves, the nightly news had to perform a delicate balancing act.  A news program had to try to appeal to the entire television audience – it had to be, quite literally, a broad cast – if it was to compete with the other two networks that were taking the same strategy.  This meant that the networks couldn’t become too partisan or take an extreme position on anything, for fear of alienating its potential audience…

       Then cable and the internet increased our choices.  The Big Three kept trying to capture as big a slice of America as possible by staying centrist, but a couple of upstarts – particularly Fox News and MSNBC – realized that there was another possible strategy.  Instead of trying to go after the entire American population with a broadly targeted program that appealed to everyone, you could go with a narrowly targeted program that appealed to only a subgroup of the population.  Throw in your lot with, say, die-hard Republicans and give them coverage that makes them happy; you alienate Democrats and won’t get them as viewers, but you can more than make up for that loss by gaining a devoted Republican fan base …  MSNBC did exactly the reverse …

“So, what’s the big deal?” one might wonder.  Let the conservatives have their Fox News and the liberals their MSNBC then everyone gets what they want.  As Charles Seife argues in his book though we need challenges to our assumptions in order for our ideas and understanding to grow and evolve.  True information can only be gained through this sometimes difficult but essential process.  If all we get when we switch on the news is a presentation that is catered to our particular slant on the world then we get stuck in our own assumptions and we even become more radicalized.  We do not get true information. 

       With news and data that is tailored to our prejudices, we deprive ourselves of true information.  We wind up wallowing in our own false ideas, reflected back to us by the media.  The news is ceasing to be a window unto the world; it is becoming a mirror that allows us to gaze only upon our own beliefs. 

       Couple this dynamic with the microsociety-building power of the hyper-interconnected internet and you’ve got two major forces that are radicalizing us.  Not only does the media fail to challenge our preconceptions – instead reinforcing them as media outlets try to cater to smaller audiences – but we all are able to find small groups of people who share and fortify the beliefs we have, no matter how quirky or outright wrong they might be.  Ironically, all this interconnection is isolating us… 

Lack of true information, radicalization and isolation – this is a disturbing and dangerous mix that, I would argue, we are witnessing the affects of throughout our world today.  That is a larger discussion but my purpose for this reflection is to wonder how much this trend of “narrow-casting” has moved into the life of the Church.  I would point to the wide-ranging reactions to the recent preparatory meeting of the upcoming Synod on the Family in Rome as a prime example.  The way I read them, reactions posted in journals, on the internet and the blogosphere were often extreme and catered to a particular slant.  There was a lot (and continues to be a lot) of noise regarding the preparatory meeting in these pieces but not much true information … at least from my reading. 

Call me crazy but I have a hunch that Pope Francis knows what he is doing and that the Holy Spirit is in the midst of the Church.  Maybe our United States “American” (I say this because this is the only cultural context I can speak to) tendency to interpret an event (i.e. the Synod on the Family) only by catering to a particular viewpoint is more of a reflection of a deficiency in our culture than a reflection of what actually transpired in Rome?  Maybe we have become more conditioned by narrow-casting than we realize? 

Pope Francis is not a product of United States “American” culture.  I do not think that he has been conditioned by narrow-casting.  I think he asked the participants at the meeting in Rome to speak boldly from their hearts because he knows what Charles Seife knows.  True information is only gained through the difficult process of having assumptions challenged – if the assumptions are true then they will only grow stronger through this process, if not then they will fall by the wayside.  Pope Francis values true discussion because he values true information.  Isn’t true information what we want any leader (particular the Pope) to have? 

Catholic means “universal”.  I do not believe that there is space for narrow-casting in the Church.  In fact, I wonder if it might even be a sin against the unity of the Church.  Seife lays out the fruits of narrow-casting: lack of true information, radicalization and isolation.  All of these harm the Body of Christ. 

Come, Holy Spirit and enkindle within us the fire of your love and strengthen your Church that she might be a humble and authentic witness of the gospel! 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran and Stewardship Sunday

One summer when I was in seminary I spent seven weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico for a Spanish immersion program.  Cuernavaca is a beautiful city located in the mountains outside of Mexico City.  I was living with a host family and I would walk a couple of blocks each day to the language institute for my classes.  The previous semester in seminary I had taken a class on the writings of St. Paul and I decided to also read through all of Paul’s letters that summer.  So, each day in the afternoon after class I would walk down the street to a little neighborhood park with my Bible and Spanish books and read a little bit of St. Paul and study some Spanish, read some St. Paul and study some Spanish.  St. Paul became my Spanish study companion.  
Reading Paul’s letters though I started to note how he often emphasized and encouraged the fledgling Christian communities in their collections and support for the needs of the church.  At first I thought this was just about the reality of money and how you just need it in order to get things done.  But the more I read St. Paul, the more I realized that the collection itself was not the primary thing for him rather it was what the giving of support itself represented in the growing spiritual maturity of the community.  The willingness to give to support the needs of the church community (whether local or not) was a reflection of the gospel taking root in one’s heart – either the heart of an individual or that of a community.  It was a sign of one’s ability to let go of self in order to focus on the needs of the other.  Paul realized that the ability to give was an important demonstration of maturity in discipleship; so by encouraging these communities in their support he was actually encouraging their growth in discipleship.  
This Sunday the Church celebrates the Dedication of the Basilica of John Lateran in Rome and in our own parish we also mark this as Stewardship Sunday.  An historical note – the actual “cathedral” of the Bishop of Rome is not St. Peter’s but the Basilica of St. John Lateran.  Before the Basilica of St. Peter we know today was constructed the bishop of Rome (the Pope) resided at St. John Lateran for hundreds of years and this basilica is still considered the actual cathedral seat of Rome.  The Church celebrates this Feast of Dedication as a moment to reflect on our unity as Church throughout the world and our understanding of the Bishop of Rome having a unique authority given by Christ for the shepherding of his Church.  
It is also a good moment to reflect on the reality of what it means to be “Church” and the gift of faith we have been given and the gift we are called to pass on to others.  Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Brothers and sisters: you are God’s building.  According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it.  But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:9-11)  We are collectively and each individually “God’s building”.  We are the Church – more so than any building, even more than magnificent buildings like St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s or the Shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico – we are the Church, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit in our world.  But if we listen to Paul’s words and we take them to heart we realize that we also are “builders”.  We are not the foundation – that is Christ our Lord, but we are builders and Paul advises that each of us “must be careful” in how we build upon this foundation.  Our lives matter, how we live our lives of faith matter and not just for us but also for others.  
I have shared that both of my parents are deceased and now looking back in hindsight some of the fondest memories and, I think, most formative moments for me were when my parents demonstrated their faith.  Nothing earth-shattering rather these were daily things like prayer before a meal, saying the rosary, making the sign of a cross when we drove by a church.  To this day I remember how every so often on a Saturday morning my Dad would gather my three brothers and I in our car and drive us to church to go to confession and God knows we needed it!  But standing in line as a young boy with my father, who was not a perfect man, left a strong and lifelong impression on me.  Whether he knew it or not my father was building upon the foundation he had received both for himself and for me.  Without saying a word he was witnessing the need for forgiveness and mercy in our lives.  Our lives matter.  How we live our lives and our faith matter.
On this Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran and Stewardship Sunday it is good to reflect on what it means to be Church, on what we have received and the call for each of us to be wise builders.  St. Paul knew this.  The ability to give and to support is a reflection of our own growing maturity as disciples, of how the gospel has taken root in our lives.  How we live our lives of faith matter, not just for us but for others – especially those who come after us.       

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Feast of All Souls: the Word of God, Faith and Mercy.

You know, as a priest, you see many things and sometimes you see things that do not necessarily go as planned.  A number of years ago I was in a cemetery for a graveside service on a bright sunny day.  A woman had died and her children and friends had gathered for the funeral.  I concluded the Church’s prayers at the graveside and stepped to the side.  The funeral director then stepped in front of the people to share a few words.  A service that this particular funeral home provided for a fee was to release a flock of doves.  The doves were trained to circle around in the air.  As the birds did this the director would offer a few words about how the doves represented the already departed members of the deceased’s family.  The director would then release a single dove – representing the recently deceased.  This bird was trained to join the flock and then all the birds would fly off (back to the funeral home).  Well, the flock was released and was circling in the air and the director said his few words.  Then the director released the one dove.  That bird flew up, saw the flock and bee-lined it in the opposite direction!  And behind me I heard someone say, “Well, she never really cared much for her family!” 
On this Feast of All Souls I do not have a flock of birds nor do I have any other gimmicks.  What the Church simply has at the moment of death, loss and suffering is the Word of God, our faith and our belief in the mercy of God.  
It has been noted that one of the primary works of the Holy Spirit is to continually remind us of what God has done through Jesus Christ, to continually lead us back to Scripture and learn anew and with new depth of understanding what God has done.  In moments of pain and loss we can forget.  In these moments God remembers for us and God invites us into this sacred remembering!  “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them … Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love …” (Wis 3:1,9)  “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our heart through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:5)  Hope springs from this remembering.  We remember not what we have done but what God has done and continues to do for us!  Jesus said, “And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.” (Jn 6:38) 
It is a good and beautiful thing to pray for the departed.  Our prayers assist our loved ones and they quicken our own hearts!  Hope as gift of the Holy Spirit does not come through some magic formula or esoteric demands but rather through daily and often ordinary choices.  When we pray we are making a choice for hope.  When we pray for our dearly departed we remind ourselves of the greater reality that life is not ended but changed at the moment of death!  Death is not the final word. When we were lost in sin and death and could no longer remember, God remembered for us and sent his Son, who died that we might have life and that we might not be forgotten and lost through death.  
It is a holy thing to pray for the departed. 
I believe that one of the most beautiful things the Church does is the Rite of Christian Burial.  It is simple, honest, straight-forward and beautiful.  It does not need gimmicks.  Throughout the Rite we find the proclamation of faith and the proclamation of God’s mercy.  Sometimes the wisdom of the Church is displayed in what she does not say and this is evidenced in the funeral rite.  Throughout all the prayers and rituals of the rite we proclaim our hope in the resurrection and we commend the dearly departed to the mercy of God and we go no further.  God alone sees into the human heart.  God alone makes the final judgment.  We, on our part, commend to God’s mercy. 
It is a beautiful and holy and hope-filled thing to pray for our dearly departed.   

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: Learning to serve the living God (30th Sunday in Ordinary Time - A)

In his book The Devil You Don't Know, Fr. Louis Cameli makes the important observation that as Christians we believe that not only has God made all creation from nothing (ex nihilo) but also that God has created “from love” and now, through Christ, God is summoning all creation back to the fullness of love.  Where the omnipotence of God is revealed in creation from nothing; the heart of God is made known in creation from and for love.  In Christ, we encounter God as love and we learn that the dynamic of true and authentic love stands at the very foundation of all creation and even within the very life of the Creator himself.
The two commandments of love of God and love of neighbor were not necessarily new in the time of Jesus.  What is unique about the gospel teaching of Christ is that our Lord inter-connects the two.  Love of God and love of neighbor now become an intersecting point for one another.  In this reality it is helpful to note that God does not compete for love with men and women; in a certain sense he does not insist on the reciprocity of love (which should obviously exist). Jesus does not say: “Love me as I have loved you,” but: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  This sets the tone for our love of God and of one another.  
This is singularly important as it leads us into an awareness of the very depth of love that God calls us to: a love that does not need to compete, a love that does not seek self but rather is willing to die to self, a love that wills the good of the other.
On the surface to contemplate living this truth of love is daunting to say the least and, left to our own devices, impossible.  But God is with us and God is patient.  In our second reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thes 1:5c-10) we can take comfort because we can learn that the progress in faith that Paul refers to can be our progress also.  Paul reminds the community of how they welcomed him, and how they became “imitators” of he and the Lord, “receiving the word” to the point of becoming a “model for all believers”.  Finally Paul reminds the community of how they, “…turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God…”  It is not coincidence that in all of this we hear the language of journey and progress.   
As we make this journey and progress of faith - learning a love that does not need to compete, that does not need to seek self, that can will the good of the other – then we begin to leave the idols of our day behind and we begin to turn to God in truth.  The idols of our day are many.  We heard of two of them in the first reading (Ex. 22:20-26)  – fear of the stranger, the alien and the one who is different as well as greed.  But there are others; violence, fear of encounter, narcissism of self and group, gossip, rumor and pride (just to name a few).  The idols of our world are many and for each of us they are also particular.  Each one of us is weighed down by our “idols”.  No one is exempt.  Often, they seem so impassible and fixed - even to the point of leaving us with the false belief that this is just the way things are and nothing can change.  
Love of God and love of neighbor are not a static point that is weak and ineffectual in our world of today, rather these two “greatest of commandments” are a journey that always leads to new life and new strength!  Faith is a journey of learning the reality of the love of God, learning to live that reality and through this coming to understand that the idols don’t have the final say, that (in fact) they are often illusions and that we can leave them behind and live a different way!  We can live with a love that does not compete, that does not seek self and that can will the good of the other above all else.  We can put our idols aside and we can learn to serve the living God! 
"You shall love the Lord, your God … You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: God's mercy. (25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - A)

When you get a chance and if you are interested I invite you to google “tree climbing goats of Morocco”.  I once stumbled across this and was really kind of mesmerized.  At first you might think that the pictures of these goats perched on extremely small branches of trees are doctored, I know I did, but they are not.  If you go to YouTube you will see videos of these goats climbing up into the trees, moving around and balancing on the branches and then scampering down.  The story is that there is a berry that these trees produce that the goats crave and over time they have adapted and developed the ability to climb the trees in order to get at the berries.  That being understood, the image of all these goats standing on branches in a tree is surreal – two very ordinary things (goats and trees) brought together in a totally unexpected way.  It makes you do a double-take when you see it and even question your perception. 
The parables of our Lord operate in a similar way I believe.  Our Lord takes common, everyday realities that we are all familiar with (maybe even take for granted) and then puts a spin on them that leaves the listener doing a mental double-take and re-evaluating ones perception of things.  Similar to seeing goats perched in a tree.  Take for example this Sunday’s parable (Mt. 20:1-16).  We can easily imagine the landowner and the laborers.  We understand what work is and what it means to give someone a fair wage for a fair day’s work.  But then there is this “spin” at the end.  Those laborers who worked only one hour get paid the same amount as those who put in a full day’s work.  And we are left with the response of the landowner, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
What is helpful to realize is that this parable is not about us.  It is about God.  God’s justice is his mercy.  In Isaiah we hear God proclaim, “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways … As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” (Is. 55:6-9).  
In this parable our Lord is not giving us a lesson on social justice nor is he presenting us with an image of the just boss.  Rather, he presents us with an absolutely exceptional person, who treats those under him beyond the bounds of any legalistic rules. The parable shows us how the Father acts - his kindness, his magnanimousness, and his mercy, which are as far from the human way of thinking as heaven is from earth. 
It is very easy to be cynical about all this, to roll one’s eyes at the Christian talk of mercy.  The cynic easily says, “Let’s get real; enough of this fairy-tale talk!”  Cynicism is indeed one of the besetting sins of our age which often dismissively equates mercy with naivety but cynicism is often really just a cover for fear.  The Christian mystery is not a puzzle to be solved and then set aside, allowing a sense of accomplishment and superiority for the cynic, rationalist and materialist.  The Christian mystery is a mystery to be lived and as we live it we are then brought to greater understanding and greater hope and joy.  And it takes courage and trust to live the mystery.  
So Isaiah doesn’t say “Figure it out!” rather he says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.”  Then he gets really personal, “…scoundrel, wicked … you forsake your way, your thoughts ... turn to the Lord for mercy…”  God owes us nothing except by his choice which is his mercy.  Rather than trying to fit God into our sense of fairness it would be better for us to wonder on God’s mercy.  
The parable is about God and how his justice is his mercy and it teaches us that when we labor for him, as we are each called to do in our own way and according to our current season in life, then we will know the great reward of his mercy.  It is a great reward.  God is unjust with no one and neither is he senseless.  God does not give according to some abstract notion of equity, rather he gives to each of his children according to his or her need.  God’s justice is his mercy. 
“Seek the Lord while he may be found…”  Encounter God and his mercy.  Live the mystery and know the life and the generous mercy that overcomes all the cynicism and sad logic of our world.
“…am I not free to do as I wish … Are you envious because I am generous?” 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thoughts on the Sunday readings: Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Prior to the gospel passage we just heard proclaimed (Jn. 3:13-17), we are told that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night”.  Nicodemus is a religious leader of his day and therefore a powerful and respected man in his society.  Even though Nicodemus can recognize and acknowledge that Jesus is a “teacher come from God” he still does not want to be seen visiting this strange new teacher who had just run out the money-changers from the temple (Jn. 2:13-22).  Nicodemus is fearful for his stature and his reputation in the society of his day.  Even though something about Jesus attracts him, Nicodemus’ faith is darkened by fear so it is telling on many levels that he comes to our Lord “by night”. 
Fear always darkens our lives.  Fear always darkens faith and fear always seeks to overshadow hope.  The exaltation of the Holy Cross, even in the stark violence of the sacrifice offered, stands in witness against fear in all its forms.  The cross banishes the darkness of fear precisely because it reveals the love of the Father.  A love so amazing that the Father permits the sacrifice of the Son in order to satisfy the demand of justice!  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
It is in and through the triumph of the Cross and Resurrection that Christians can say “no” to the sad logic of violence, oppression and fear.  In the exaltation of the Cross, we can say that peace, reconciliation and forgiveness are always possible.  In some ways it seems counter-intuitive that a means of violent execution becomes the sign of hope; but this is God’s logic – a logic that overcomes all the supposed logic and understanding of our world.
In my prayer this week, my thoughts have kept returning to our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world, especially in the Middle East, who are facing the very real threat of martyrdom for their faith in Christ.  Many have already been martyred, some through very violent and barbaric acts.  We often think of the age of the martyrs as a period of early Christian history but in the twentieth century alone more Christian were killed for their faith than at any other time in history.  Sadly, the trend seems to be continuing in this century.  These men and women facing the full onslaught of violence witness the wisdom and hope that can only come through embracing the cross of Christ! 
When I was in seminary I received some advice on preaching that has remained with me to this day.  I was told that when I preach I should not worry about having to review all of salvation history in one homily rather I should concern myself simply with saying something that invites people to prayer.  So, I will end this homily with a direct invitation to prayer: sometime on this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross go before a crucifix whether it is here in the church, whether at home, whether an image you pull up on the internet, whether in your mind’s eye.  Place yourself before the cross, imagine Christ looking on you with love and reflect on the love revealed on the cross, receive that love and allow it to banish any fears that you might be carrying in your life.  The logic of the cross, God’s logic, overcomes all the fears and sad divisions and violence of our world.  And, in a special way, pray for our brothers and sisters who are facing persecution and death for their love of Christ.